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Analysis: Voters punish leaders in EU poll

By GARETH HARDING, Chief European Correspondent   |   June 14, 2004 at 12:22 AM   |   Comments

BRUSSELS, June 14 (UPI) -- Europe's governing parties received a mauling from disgruntled voters Sunday as preliminary results from the EU Parliament elections showed opposition parties making sweeping gains across the continent.

In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats suffered their biggest post-war setback, picking up just over 20 percent of the vote. British Prime Minister Tony Blair fared little better, with little more than one in five voters backing his Labor Party. But the left's worst performance was in Poland, where the ruling party of premier-designate Marek Belka was virtually wiped out by populist right wing groupings.

Conservative governments also took a pounding from voters who used the European Parliament elections as a mid-term protest vote. In Italy, fierce opposition to the conflict in Iraq saw the center-left grouping of European Commission President Romano Prodi trounce the pro-war party of Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi, while in France, President Jacques Chirac's UMP party mustered only 16 percent of the vote. Other governments that took a battering from voters included the Dutch, Danish, Belgian, Hungarian and Slovak ones.

The only administrations to break the trend were the Spanish and Greek governments, both enjoying honeymoons with their electorates after recent election victories.

The full results of the world's second largest democratic elections after India will not be known until late Monday, but preliminary results show the center-right European People's Party remaining the EU assembly's largest grouping with 269 of the 732 seats, the Socialists grabbing 199, the Liberals 63 and the Greens 42.

But the night's biggest winners were Euro-skeptic parties, which more than doubled their numbers. In Britain, the U.K. Independence Party -- which advocates London's complete withdrawal from the EU -- received almost 20 percent of the vote, only two percentage points behind Labor and the Conservatives. In the Czech Republic and Poland, two former communist countries that joined the 25-nation bloc last month, Euro-skeptic groupings also triumphed.

European Parliament President Pat Cox described the result of Europe's first ever continent-wide elections as a "wake-up call" to mainstream parties. The Irishman, who is tipped to become the next European Commission chief, said the message for leaders was "If they believe in the European Union they have a special responsibility to go out and sell Europe to the public."

Cox also berated political parties for focusing on national, rather than European, issues. "Europe has been absent in too many campaigns," he told reporters gathered at the EU assembly's Brussels headquarters.

Although 155 million people voted in the world's only cross-border poll, politicians expressed dismay at the turnout, which at 44 percent is the lowest since direct elections were first held 25 years ago. Despite the fact that the EU parliament has gained huge powers over the past quarter of a century, turnout has slumped in every poll.

The highest numbers of absentee voters were in the ten new member states that joined the club on May 1. There, turnout was a pitiful 29 percent, reflecting widespread disillusionment with the EU less than six weeks after joining. Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic said the reason only one in five of his countrymen and women had voted was because "People do not know what the vote is about and therefore they are not going to vote."

In an election campaign overshadowed by the war in Iraq and public disquiet about welfare cuts, European issues played second fiddle to concerns such as unemployment and the quality of schools and hospitals. "Generally my impression is that the European elections don't get people excited," said Hans-Gert Pottering, head of the largest parliamentary group in the EU's only democratically elected body. "Unfortunately, domestic issues are in the foreground. Too few people recognize that domestic policy increasingly has to be seen in a European context."

Austria and the Netherlands proved the exceptions to the rule due to the presence of reformist candidates running on a pledge to 'clean-up' Brussels. In Vienna, the newly-formed party of Hans-Peter Martin -- a leftist Euro-deputy who filmed his colleagues cashing in on the Parliament's lavish pay and perks scheme -- got over 10 percent of the vote. And in the Hague, former commission official Paul van Buitenen -- whose expose of wrongdoings helped bring down the EU executive in 1999 -- was elected to sit in the assembly.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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